For once, it wasn’t about Mike McGinn.
Nearly 30 community members, city councilmembers, city staff and attorneys met at the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee Oct. 11 to work out the details of a new Community Police Commission. It was a rare instance in which police reform was in the hands of someone other than the mayor.
Members of the Multiracial Task Force on Police Accountability and the city council have created an ordinance that will determine how much influence the community will have in reforming the police department.
The city council is still debating how large the commission will be and how much access it can have to police records. But task force members and the city council agreed that the commission will give the community a voice in reforming the SPD.
“This is the one body in this entire process that will actually represent the community,” said Jennifer Shaw, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The proposal for the commission stemmed from a court-ordered settlement between the city of Seattle and the Department of Justice (DOJ). In December 2011, the DOJ released a report showing that the SPD has a pattern and practice of excessive force. A court-ordered settlement to resolve the matter called for more community engagement.
The commission was initially devised as a temporary community panel to last only as long as the court-ordered settlement between the city and DOJ. But unlike the settlement, lasting police reform doesn’t end in three years, so the city council and the task force decided the commission should be permanent.
While the Community Police Commission is only advisory, it’s a permanent and official voice for community members, many of whom say they’ve felt forced to stay on the sidelines.
Seeking new members
The panel will consist of 11 or 15 members, which includes one member of the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild and one member of the Seattle Police Management Association. The rest will represent a cross section of Seattle.
The group will have a dedicated staff member from the city, access to SPD records and the ability to issue public reports. The group could even issue recommendations on how to implement reforms required from the city and DOJ’s settlement agreement.
The city is already taking applications for the commission at seattle.gov/policecommission.
While members of the Multiracial Task Force see the commission as a win, they’re still fighting for a few details in the legislation, including the size of the commission. The legislation currently calls for 11 members, but they want four more community members, for a total of 15.
A larger panel would make room for more expertise, said Chris Stearns, chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission and member of the Multiracial Task Force. “There are a number of highly qualified individuals who have been working on this issue. They bring years, decades of experience,” he said.
A larger group would allow a wider range of races and economic classes to join the group.
“Eleven is not sufficient to represent the diversity we need,” said Ernest Saadiq Morris, a civil rights attorney and the director of Urban Youth Justice.
The city has pushed for a smaller group because it’s more manageable, but Councilmember Mike O’Brien has said he would support 15 members simply because the community wants it.
Access to records
Once the commission starts working, they will have a full-time staff member, but it’s not clear how much access they will have to information.
The ordinance states that the group should be able to see anything allowed through a Freedom of Information Act. Additionally they would not have to file a formal request. City staff said the ordinance allows for a quick transfer of information.
Civil rights attorneys worry the ordinance isn’t clear enough to do that.
“Public records can be redacted, they can also be challenged,” Morris said.
That could limit what the group can see, including police records for cases that did not end in a conviction.
City Councilmember Bruce Harrell said he wants the legislation to allow the commission to see anything he could see as an elected official.
City council left out
The process of creating the legislation has offered a glimpse into what police reform might look like under the city council.
At the Oct. 11 meeting, Lisa Daugaard of the Defender Association proposed that the city council enact stricter ordinances concerning biased policing, which was not addressed in the court-ordered police reforms.
The mayor resisted reforms on biased policing, but Daugaard’s comment caught Councilmember O’Brien’s attention. He called it an “idea I’d like to pursue,” adding that the council can take action on it without permission from the DOJ.
It’s not a new idea, but biased policing didn’t get traction before the city council was involved.
In a phone conversation Pamela Stearns, co-director of the task force, said, “Throughout this whole process, the mayor has been at the forefront.”
To Harrell, there’s still room for improvement. The mayor included council-members in creating a community
police commission and has shared details on a court-appointed monitor, but is McGinn still keeping city council — and by extension the community — out of other aspects of police reform?
“Yes,” Harrell said, “but at this point I’d rather not get into specific examples.”